Hard facts: The world is getting better

Heads of state speaking at the United Nations last week painted a bleak picture of the world’s future, talking about the great recession, rising poverty rates, global warming, and armed conflicts everywhere. So without denying any of these problems, it’s time to put things in perspective.

Is the world really getting worse? Even if we don’t believe those prophecies claiming that the world will come to an end in 2012, is the current wave of global pessimism justified?

A massive new study, entitled The State of the World 20 11 and published by an international think-tank known as The Millennium Project, helps us put the current world troubles in perspective. It says that, despite major threats on various fronts, the world is becoming a better place to live in.

“The world is getting richer, healthier, better educated, more peaceful, and better connected, and people are living longer,” it says, while reminding us that despite all these signs of progress, “half the world is potentially unstable.”

Granted, food prices are rising, water is becoming scarce in some countries, corruption and organized crime are thriving, climate changes are increasing, and the gap between the rich and poor has widened since the 2008 world recession. But the report suggests that if you put these problems in historical context, progress is undeniable.

Despite often catastrophic headlines in the media, there is a growing awareness that we are one species and that we must learn to live with each other. The massive aid during the recent calamities in Haiti, Pakistan, and Japan, as well as the solidarity with democracy movements across the Arab world, are just the latest symptoms that people are more interconnected and care more about each other, it says.

“Fifty years ago, people argued that poverty elimination was an idealistic fantasy and a waste of money,” the report says. “Today, people argue about the best ways to achieve that goal within 50 years.”

Consider some of the report’s figures on what has happened just in the last 25 years:
• The average life expectancy worldwide rose from 64 years in the mid-1980s to 68 years today.
• Infant mortality worldwide has fallen from nearly 70 deaths per 100,000 people to 40 deaths today.
• Poverty, defined by the percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day, fell from 43 per cent of the world population in the mid-1980s to 23 per cent today.
• The percentage of the world population with access to water rose from 75 per cent to more than 86 per cent.
• Secondary school enrolment rose from 45 per cent in the mid-1980s to nearly 70 per cent today.
• The number of major armed conflicts declined from 37 in the mid-1980s to 26 today.

And unless we mess things up, these trends may improve even faster thanks to new technological advances. “The coming biological revolution may change civilization more profoundly than did the industrial or information revolutions,” the report says.

“Thirteen years ago, the concept of being dependent on Google searches was unknown to the world. Today, we consider it quite normal,” it adds. “Thirteen years from today, the concept of being dependent on synthetic life forms for medicine, food, water and energy could also be quite normal.”

My opinion: I was happy to read this study, because I agree that the world is getting better, despite periodic setbacks like the current one.
Whenever the “end of the world” discussion comes up, I always ask my friends a simple question: if you could choose between having lived 200 years ago or today, what would you choose?

Even the most recalcitrant pessimists have to admit that living 200 years ago — when life expectancy was less than 40 years, and you couldn’t get anaesthesia when you had a toothache or a kidney stone — was no fun. We live longer, and better, today.

But I’m an anxious optimist, who doesn’t take progress for granted. The fact that the world is getting better should not lead us to complacency, but, on the contrary, should be an antidote against skeptics and a driving force to advance even faster.
None of this will fix our current problems, but it can help us navigate with a little more sense of direction through the current climate of doom.

© The Miami Herald, 2011. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Media Services. 

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